My US years were ‘best education any history book could have never given’: Filmmaker Sapna Bhavnani

Sapna Bhavnani
Sapna Bhavnani

Bhavnani’s documentary “Sindhustan” will be screened at two festivals in New York and Atlanta.

Actor, artist, hair stylist, writer, director and producer Sapna Moti Bhavnani dons many hats. Whether it was as a reality show contestant on TV, or as a stylist, she has always let her fiery streak speak for her. After spending 14 years in the United States, Bhavnani decided to move back to India to once again start from the scratch.

Recently she was awarded the “IBelieve” award and the “FemEmpowerment” award for her work with ex-sex workers by starting a free hair academy called “Path in India.” She then worked as a Creative Producer for the award-winning film Mehsampur, before starting the festival journey with her directorial debut documentary Sindhustan.

Bhavnani is coming back to the US to start her another inning. Her film will be shown at the upcoming New York India film Festival, followed by the Atlanta India film Festival 2019.

In a candid interview, she shares with the American Bazaar about the film, which talks about migration and what it was like to leave her cushioned life in Echo Park, Los Angeles, a 78 Cadillac Coupe DeVille, an Elvis lookalike boyfriend and a job in the music industry in America to start all over again in India and why she did that.

Your film has been selected to be showcased at NYIFF and then it will be screened in Atlanta, too. Tell us about these festivals. Why it is significant to tell this story on world platforms?

The story of Sindh has been a secret for decades. In fact, it’s such a secret that even the new generation Sindhis don’t know about it. I heard somewhere that the adults had made a pact that they would not talk about their past in their new surroundings and adapt to their new life peacefully. Which sounds fascinating and almost “cultish”, but realizing it now, when the stories die, everything dies. The migration was the largest in history and yet the world has no idea about it. This quote [by William Dalrymple] really sums it up for me … “By 1948, as the great migration drew to a close, more than fifteen million people had been uprooted, and between one and two million were dead. The comparison with the death camps is not so far-fetched as it may seem. Partition is central to modern identity in the Indian subcontinent, as the Holocaust is to identity among Jews, branded painfully onto the regional consciousness by memories of almost unimaginable violence.”

The Jews made sure their stories were known to the world — through art, films, television, books, and personal narratives. The Sindhis need a similar vehicle to spread tell their stories and i feel my documentary is one of them.  It speaks to a universal audience instead of just “Sindhis” in a language that the youth will understand.

You talk about the Sindhi migration through your tattoos. This sounds very interesting, even intriguing. Explain this more?

Grandmothers know everything. When (my grandmom) first saw me getting inked, she told me “when we first came on this planet, we lived in tribes… extended families. We didn’t have governments or countries but we all had our own markings, which I see you having. I am so proud to see you going back to your roots.” It was evident that tattoos were going to be the language I would tell their stories in and like my grandma said, go back to my roots.

Was it natural for you to talk about migration? Especially because you spent your growing up years in the US as a migrant?

I did not live in the US as a migrant. I came there to study and just stayed back. Unlike most communities that only hang out with their own in foreign lands, I explored others. I was fascinated to see so many different kinds of brown people like Mexican, Italian, Spanish, etc. and so many shades of Asians and Blacks, all under one big massive united roof. I actually let go of my “Indian” upbringing and threw myself in understanding others. This was the best thing that ever happened to me. My 14 years in America were the best education any history book could have never given. Hence, I decided to ditch history books (which are anyway written by someone who has witnessed something but edited so much that the truth is sucked out of it) and go straight to the source and interview people who had witnessed partition. What I learnt from their stories was more than anything I ever knew. So, coming back to your question, I did not live in America as a migrant, I lived in America as an American and that is exactly what my ancestors did. They adopted the language and traditions of their new home and let go of their own.

Sindhustan has also won the Griffith Film School Award. What would you say about Indian alternate films as well as documentaries getting recognition on world platform and global film festivals? How do you think the perception of serious cinema changed?

We won the Griffith Film School Award at DocEdge Kolkata, which is the biggest pitching forum in Asia for documentaries. So, we won it on home ground technically, but the 15 students from Griffith Film School in Brisbane, Australia, who were watching the whole process pitched our film as their best choice and that made us really happy as we are aiming to speak to the youth and this just proved that we are on the right track.

Did migration affect you? Tell us about your years in the US?

Migration did not affect me. I did not encounter any racism in my 14 years. I think I just blended. America was very good to me in fulfilling all my dreams, so good, in fact, that I left it because of it. At 32, I felt I had everything.

How was the shift from US to India? Why did you choose to stay back in India?

I chose to come back to India because, like I said, I had everything. A house in the hills in Echo Park, Los Angeles, a 78 Cadillac Coupe DeVille, 2 dogs, 2 cats, an Elvis lookalike boyfriend, a job in the music industry, and a decent-size pay check. I needed to feel the fire again. My pay check dropped from $5,000 dollars a month to 5,000 rupees. My entry into the film world is kind of the same now. Besides having a lovely Sindhi, who gave me money, I have also taken a loan to finish this documentary. The fire is raging this time and the desire to return to America is ignited.

You have been a hairstylist, designer, reality TV actor and now a director. Tell us about your various roles?

In every role, I have been the same, extremely passionate and extremely principled. My extreme principles, in fact, are a bit too extreme… They have kept me from entering mainstream and completely “selling out.” I guess I have always been a mom and pop shop and will continue to be so even in my film career. Indie till I die.

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